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On March 26, the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware dismissed a 2017 lawsuit filed by the CFPB against a collection of Delaware statutory trusts and their debt collector, ruling that the Bureau lacked enforcement authority to bring the action when its structure was unconstitutional. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau alleged the defendants filed lawsuits against consumers for private student loan debt that they could not prove was owed or that was outside the applicable statute of limitations, which allowed them to obtain over $21.7 million in judgments against consumers and collect an estimated $3.5 million in payments in cases where they lacked the intent or ability to prove the claims, if contested. In 2020, the court denied a motion to approve the Bureau’s proposed consent judgment, allowing the case to proceed. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Bureau lacked subject-matter jurisdiction because the defendants should not have been under the regulatory purview of the agency, and that former Director Kathy Kraninger’s ratification of the enforcement action, which followed the Supreme Court holding in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB that that the director’s for-cause removal provision was unconstitutional but was severable from the statute establishing the Bureau (covered by a Buckley Special Alert), came after the three-year statute of limitations had expired. While the Bureau acknowledged that the ratification came more than three years after the discovery of the alleged violations, it argued that the statute of limitations should be ignored because the initial complaint had been timely filed and that the limitations period had been equitably tolled.
The court rejected the subject-matter jurisdiction argument because it held that the term “covered persons” as used in the Consumer Financial Protection Act, 12 U.S.C. § 5481(6), is not a jurisdictional requirement. However, the court then determined that the Bureau’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations. The Bureau filed the complaint while operating under a structure later found unconstitutional in Seila Law, and Director Kraninger’s subsequent ratification of the action came after the limitations period had expired. The court concluded that this made the complaint untimely. It also rejected the Bureau’s equitable tolling argument based on the Bureau’s failure to take actions to preserve its rights during the period when its constitutionality was in question. The court also noted that the Bureau “failed to pursue this very argument seriously in its brief,” which presented the equitable tolling argument in a “brief and conclusory” fashion.
On March 29, CFPB acting Director Dave Uejio and FTC acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter issued a joint statement indicating staff at both agencies will be monitoring and investigating eviction practices to ensure that they comply with the law. The statement follows the CDC’s March 28 announcement extending its current moratorium on residential evictions for three additional months, through June 30. Uejio and Slaughter noted that the agencies are coordinating with the CDC to ensure renters are informed of their rights under the eviction moratorium and understand how to complete declarations needed to stop evictions. Additionally, the agencies are monitoring consumer complaints for spikes and trends in potential Covid-19-related violations of the prohibitions against deceptive and unfair practices, including those under the FDCPA and the FTC Act.
On March 23, CFPB acting Director Dave Uejio published a blog post highlighting the Bureau’s belief that harms in the small dollar lending market identified by its 2017 final rule covering “Payday, Vehicle Title, and Certain High-Cost Installment Loans” still exist. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2020, the Bureau issued a final rule revoking certain underwriting provisions of the 2017 final rule, including (i) the provision that makes it an unfair and abusive practice for a lender to make covered high-interest rate, short-term loans or covered longer-term balloon payment loans without reasonably determining that the consumer has the ability to repay the loans according to their terms; (ii) the prescribed mandatory underwriting requirements for making the ability-to-repay determination; (iii) the “principal step-down exemption” provision for certain covered short-term loans; and (iv) related definitions, reporting, and recordkeeping requirements. Uejio stressed that the Bureau intends to “use the authority provided by Congress to address these harms, including through vigorous market monitoring, supervision, enforcement, and, if appropriate, rulemaking.” Additionally, he noted that the Bureau “continues to believe that ability to repay is an important underwriting standard. To the extent small dollar lenders’ business models continue to rely on consumers’ inability to repay, those practices cause harm that must be addressed by the CFPB.”
On March 24, the CFPB published its Consumer Response Annual Report for 2020, providing a review of the Bureau’s complaint process and a description of complaints received from consumers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia between January 1 and December 31, 2020. According to the report, the Bureau handled approximately 542,300 consumer complaints—an almost 54 percent increase from 2019. Of these complaints, the Bureau noted that roughly 32,100 complaints referenced the Covid-19 pandemic or related keywords, but emphasized that complaints that did not include Covid-19 as a keyword were not necessarily an indication that the complaint was not related to the financial impact of the pandemic. Additionally, roughly 84 percent of the complaints were submitted to companies for review and response, nine percent were referred to other regulatory agencies, and seven percent were determined to be incomplete. Report data showed that more than 3,300 companies responded to complaints received by the Bureau, with roughly 11,100 complaints receiving administrative responses. In addition, as of February 1, 2021, approximately 3,900 complaints were still being reviewed by companies, the report stated. The top products and services—representing approximately 92 percent of all complaints—were credit or consumer reporting, debt collection, credit cards, checking or savings accounts, and mortgages. The Bureau also received complaints related to: (i) money transfers and virtual currency; (ii) vehicle finance; (iii) prepaid cards; (iv) student, personal, and payday loans; (v) credit repair; and (vi) title loans. The CFPB also reported that 89 percent of consumers who submitted complaints indicated that they first tried to resolve their issues with the companies.
On March 22, the CFPB and the FTC released their 2020 annual report to Congress on the administration of the FDCPA. Under a memorandum of understanding, the agencies are provided joint FDCPA enforcement responsibility and may share supervisory and consumer complaint information, as well as collaborate on education efforts. Among other things, the report provides a broad overview of the debt collection industry during the Covid-19 pandemic and highlights enforcement actions, education efforts, policy initiatives, and supervisory findings. The report also notes that the Bureau handled roughly 82,700 complaints filed by consumers about first- and third-party debt collectors in 2020, up from the 75,000 complaints it received in 2019, and engaged in four public enforcement actions arising from alleged FDCPA violations. Judgments resulting from these actions yielded nearly $15.2 million in consumer redress and $80,000 in civil money penalties. Additionally, the report discusses the Bureau’s FDCPA-rulemaking actions taken last year, including the issuance of two final rules amending Regulation F, which implements the FDCPA (covered by InfoBytes here and here). The report notes that both final rules are scheduled to take effect on November 30, but also refers to a February statement released by acting Director Dave Uejio, in which he “directed staff to ‘explore options for preserving the status quo’” with respect to the debt collection rules.
Earlier in the week, the FTC announced it provided the CFPB last month with its annual summary of debt collection-related activities taken in 2020. While the FTC’s debt collection program primarily focuses on enforcement investigations and litigation with respect to violations of the FDCPA and the FTC Act, the summary also highlights Commission efforts to engage in public outreach, as well as partnerships with the Bureau and other government agencies to combat unlawful debt collection practices. Highlights of the summary include:
- The creation of Operation Corrupt Collector, a nationwide enforcement and outreach effort led by the FTC in coordination with the CFPB and more than 50 federal and state law enforcement partners to target illegal debt collection practices (covered by InfoBytes here).
- The FTC filed or resolved seven cases against 39 defendants, obtaining $26 million in judgments.
- The FTC accused a company and three of its officers of allegedly engaging in passive debt collection—a practice known as “debt parking”—in which the defendants placed debts that consumers did not owe or the defendants were not authorized to collect on consumers’ credit reports without first attempting to communicate with the consumers about the debts (covered by InfoBytes here).
- The FTC and the New York attorney general permanently banned an individual defendant accused of engaging in “serious and repeated violations of law” from participating in debt collection activities (covered by InfoBytes here).
- The FTC produced educational materials for both consumers and debt collectors covering rights and responsibilities under the FDCPA and FTC Act, including resources specifically for Spanish speakers.
On March 16, the CFPB sued a California-based student loan debt relief company, its owner, and manager (collectively, “defendants”) for allegedly charging borrowers more than $3.5 million in unlawful advance fees. The complaint alleged that between 2015 and 2019, the defendants violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR) and the CFPA by unlawfully marketing and enrolling borrowers in the company’s purported debt relief services. Defendants allegedly charged and collected advance fees from borrowers with federal student loans to file paperwork on their behalf in order to access free Department of Education debt-relief programs. According to the Bureau, the defendants violated the TSR by requesting and receiving payment of fees before renegotiating, settling, reducing, or altering the terms of at least one debt pursuant to an agreement, and before the consumer made at least one payment pursuant to that agreement. The Bureau also alleged that the owner defendant formed a California limited liability company (relief defendant) and unlawfully transferred a portion of the funds received from the advance fees into the relief defendant’s bank account. The complaint seeks injunctive relief, as well as restitution and civil money penalties. The complaint also seeks to have the relief defendant disgorge or compensate consumers for the funds it received.
On March 9, the CFPB denied a request made by a Delaware online payday lender and its CEO (collectively, “respondents”) to stay a January 2021 final decision and order requiring the payment of approximately $51 million in restitution and civil money penalties, pending appellate review. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in 2015, the Bureau filed a notice of charges alleging the respondents (i) continued to debit borrowers’ accounts using remotely created checks after consumers revoked the lender’s authorization to do so; (ii) required consumers to repay loans via pre-authorized electronic fund transfers; and (iii) deceived consumers about the cost of short-term loans by providing them with contracts that contained disclosures based on repaying the loan in one payment, while the default terms called for multiple rollovers and additional finance charges. Former Director Kathy Kraninger issued the final decision and order in January, affirming an administrative law judge’s recommendation that the respondents’ actions violated TILA, EFTA, and the CFPA’s prohibition on unfair or deceptive acts or practices by, among other things, deceiving consumers about the costs of their online short-term loans.
The Bureau’s March 9 administrative order determined that respondents (i) failed to show they have a substantial case on the merits with respect to their argument regarding ratification as an appropriate remedy for the respondents’ alleged constitutional violation; (ii) failed to show they “suffered irreparable harm” because the Bureau’s final decision does not infringe on the respondents’ constitutional rights and merely requires them to pay money into an escrow account; and (iii) failed to demonstrate that staying the final decision would not harm other parties and the public interest because the respondents might “dissipate assets during the pendency of further proceedings,” potentially impacting future consumer redress. The administrative order, however, granted a 30-day stay to allow respondents to seek a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
On March 17, CFPB acting Director Dave Uejio issued a statement encouraging financial institutions and debt collectors to allow Economic Impact Payment (EIP) funds to reach consumers. Uejio expressed concerns that EIP funds—distributed through the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (covered by InfoBytes here)—may be intercepted to cover consumers’ overdraft fees, past-due debts, or other financial liabilities. Uejio applauded proactive measures taken by industry members to ensure consumers have the ability to access the full value of their EIP funds, noting that “many financial institutions have pledged to promptly restore the funds to the people who should receive them.”
On March 11, the CFPB announced it has rescinded its January 2020 policy statement, which addressed prohibitions on abusive acts or practices. As previously covered by InfoBytes, the Bureau issued the policy statement to provide a “common-sense framework” for how it planned to apply the “abusiveness” standard in supervision and enforcement matters as authorized under Dodd-Frank. Under the 2020 policy statement, the Bureau stated it would only cite or challenge conduct as abusive if the agency “concludes that the harms to consumers from the conduct outweigh its benefits to consumers.” The Bureau also stated it would generally avoid challenging conduct as abusive if it relies on all, or nearly all, of the same facts alleged to be unfair or deceptive, and that it would decline to seek civil money penalties and disgorgement for certain abusive acts or practices, absent unusual circumstances.
The Bureau now states that it is rescinding the 2020 policy statement after reaching the conclusion that the principles set forth do not actually provide clarity to regulated entities. Among other things, the Bureau notes that the 2020 policy statement is counterproductive, “afford[s] the Bureau considerable discretion in its application,” and adds uncertainty to market participants. Moreover, the Bureau claims that after reviewing and applying the 2020 policy statement, it has had “the opposite effect on preventing harm.” Going forward, the Bureau states it intends to “exercise the full scope of its supervisory and enforcement authority to identify and remediate abusive acts and practices” as established by Congress.
On March 9, the CFPB issued an interpretive rule to clarify that ECOA’s prohibition against sex discrimination includes sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. “This prohibition also covers discrimination based on actual or perceived nonconformity with traditional sex- or gender-based stereotypes, and discrimination based on an applicant’s social or other associations,” the Bureau stated. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, holding that “the prohibition against sex discrimination in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 encompasses sexual orientation discrimination and gender identity discrimination.” Following the Court’s decision, the Bureau issued a request for information (RFI) seeking, among other things, feedback on ways to provide clarity under ECOA and/or Regulation B related to the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of a sexual orientation or gender identity. (Covered by InfoBytes here.) Consistent with the Bostock decision and supported by many comments received in response to the RFI, the Bureau issued the interpretive rule to address any regulatory uncertainty that may still exist regarding the term “sex” under ECOA/Regulation B in order to protect against discrimination and ensure fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory access to credit for both individuals and communities. The interpretive rule is effective upon publication in the Federal Register.
The Bureau also announced plans to review—and update as needed—publication and examination guidance documents to reflect the interpretive rule, and intends to take appropriate enforcement action against financial institutions that violate ECOA.
- Jonice Gray Tucker to moderate “Pandemic relief response and lasting impacts on access, credit, banking, and equality” at the American Bar Association Business Law Section Spring Meeting
- Jeffrey P. Naimon to discuss "Post-pandemic CFPB exam preparation" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Spring Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Making fair lending work for you" at the Mortgage Bankers Association Spring Conference & Expo
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Reading the tea leaves of President Biden’s initial financial appointees" at LendIt Fintech
- Moorari K. Shah to discuss “CA, NY, federal licensing and disclosure” at the Equipment Leasing & Finance Association Legal Forum
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss "Compliance under Biden" at the WSJ Risk & Compliance Forum
- Sherry-Maria Safchuk to discuss UDAAP at an American Bar Association webinar
- Jonice Gray Tucker to discuss “The future of fair lending” at the Mortgage Bankers Association Legal Issues and Regulatory Compliance Conference